I once had dreams of becoming like Bruce Springsteen. Now, at age 62, I write about him, go to his shows, sing along to his songs in my car, teach my children about his significance, use his works in my Wharton classes, and even serve as a Guest DJ on E Street Radio. But despite my earlier wishes to live a successful musical performer’s life, it’s not going to happen. I’m not Springsteen, and never will be.
And that’s OK.
We often say to children, “You can be whatever you want to be.” But, at some point along the path to adulthood, you come to accept that maybe you’re really not going to be a professional basketball player, or an astronaut, or the president, or a rock star. Maybe you just don’t have the aptitude, or the drive, or the skills to make your fantasy mesh with your reality. Part of reaching maturity means coming to know ourselves – our strengths and our limitations – figuring out how our gifts can realistically flourish in the world.
Middle age is often when we have to confront the realities of our career aspirations. By this time, childhood fantasies of becoming a princess or president may have long been put to rest. But you probably still wish for success, recognition, or promotions in your current endeavors. And while these aspirations might seem more attainable than youthful dreams, sometimes they’re simply not, for whatever reason. Maybe you long to be CEO, but you’re just not suited to a management position. Maybe you always dreamed of starting your own company, but you’re risk-averse. Maybe you lack the education, experience, skills, motivation, or resources that it would take to fulfill your earlier career dreams.
Whatever the reason, when you’re finally facing the reality that you may never become CEO, or succeed your direct supervisor, or lead your team, or get that big promotion, what do you do?
First, as in dealing with any loss, understand there may be denial – and it may last for some time. You might want to hold on to the hope you’ll get there someday, but that hope won’t necessarily help you obtain the longed-for goal. There may be anger, justified or not. People often blame their superiors for being ignorant, for showing favoritism, for being sexist, racist, or classist. While these may all be accurate assessments of the work environment, the anger, like the denial, also isn’t likely to move you toward that promotion – or toward acceptance.
Oftentimes, there’s sadness, and even depression. Thus the cliché of the mid-life crisis, replete with an affair and a sports car; something to both deny reality and cheer you up in the face of fading aspirations, while helping you instead feel something akin to the power of youth flowing through your veins. But ultimately, you need to accept the situation as it is.
To lead the life you want, you must have a vision that’s useful: a compelling image of an achievable future. Once you’ve found some resolution in your mind’s view of your real prospects, the next step on your journey can commence. The essential task is to find meaning and a sense of purpose – to take control over what you actually can do.
This is what I try to help my students and clients to do: Discover what’s truly most important in their lives. To do this, you need to account for and take pleasure in your accomplishments to date — at work and elsewhere. Experiment with how you can best use your talents and passions to create value for yourself and others. Own the responsibility to take steps, however small, toward realizing your current vision of the leader you want to become, and the world you can create — at work, at home, and in your community.
YOU AND YOUR TEAM
When you’re feeling stuck.
Sometimes life simply deals us a bad hand. Psychologists have researched ways to cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We need what Suzanne Kobasa and Salvatore Maddi call hardiness, what Angela Duckworth and colleagues call grit, what Carol Dweck and others call a growth mindset, and what The American Psychological Association refers to as resilience. Whatever you call this stick-to-it-iveness, it’s essential for being able to overcome setbacks and hardships of any sort, including career mid-life crises and stagnations.
Eric Greitens knows a lot about this subject. In his just-released Resilience, Greitens recounts hard-won wisdom for living a better life, drawn from his interpretation of ancient philosophy, modern existentialism, and his own experience as both a humanitarian and a Navy SEAL. The central idea is to find purpose in what you can do. While you are not responsible for all that happens to you, you are responsible for how you react to what happens to you. Stop the blaming and the resentment and assert control over what you can.
As I describe in my books Total Leadership and Leading the Life You Want (in which Greitens is featured), you have to take positive action that’s rooted in your core values – in what you now care most about in your life. Accepting the facts of your current reality is the first and most important thing you can do to move through the trials of a mid-career crisis. Next, reflect on what is truly most important to you. Is it really that promotion, or is it your family, your friends, your community, your own health and well-being? At the midpoint of life, most people are able, upon reflection, to consider their own lives and their own legacies beyond their positions and their paychecks. Considering what is essential to your sense of purpose and your sense of contentment can help you look for ways to move in the direction you choose – a direction that somehow makes the world a bit better for others and is closer to the future you now want to fashion. Some people might find deep satisfaction, and solace, in a creative endeavor (for example, art or writing) that feeds their soul. Others might invest more attention in friends and family. Others might find meaning in charitable community efforts. And others might discover a new dream, one that’s now attainable – an encore that’s ultimately more fulfilling than any earlier career aspirations.
In short, even without that once hoped-for promotion, big job title, or salary bump, you can find meaning, purpose, fulfillment, and even happiness and joy in your life when you realize you might need to let go of an earlier dream. And while you’re still on the path to discovery, there are ways of making work more fulfilling and meaningful, too. For instance, maybe you’ve seen Millennials as the enemy – the ones taking the positions you’ve always coveted. If you change your mindset, you can instead start to see yourself as a mentor to them. But this, of course, requires you to let go of denial and anger and come to accept things as they are.
While you might not get to be the rock star you once dreamed you’d be, with resilience, persistence, and conscious experimentation, trial-and-error may eventually lead you to a place where you will feel that you’re doing what you were actually meant to do all along. In that vein, I have heeded The Boss’s oft-quoted admonition to not “spend your life waiting for a moment that just won’t come,” and instead have been striving to listen to my heart and become myself.